For class at Lehigh, I am reading the book Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. Most of the book is made up of descriptions of 55 cities, told by a Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, to the emperor, Khan. Each city is explained in a gripping and incredible way that mixes imagery and personification and raises a variety of feelings and questions. My professor told the class to “find our city” as we read. The exercise is intended to make us aware of the cities in the story that jump out at us, connect to us, or make us really understand what the city is all about. The book allows the reader to think in a way that eliminates the conventional boundaries so you are able to think openly about the functionality and potentiality of cities.
In one insightful chapter, Polo tells the emperor of a group of individuals who fail in their efforts to find a city they dreamed of. After they eventually stop searching for it, they decide to create it as they dreamed it. In time, as more and more men arrive (having had similar dreams), they continued to change the city. As time passed, all of the men lost track of the dream that led to its creation in the first place and viewed the city as an ugly trap. Their failure, it would seem, was the attempt to work in all different directions, focused only on individual interests. An interesting concept that relates well to an op-ed found in the New York Times this week.
An op-ed by Bob Herbert in Tuesday’s New York Times, also gets at this idea of using imagination as a tool towards greater understanding and action. Herbert challenges us to imagine a world in which future generations have a thriving, sustainable, and healthy America. Herbert contends that such a future depends heavily on how we (I use ‘we’ and ‘our’ as Herbert uses ‘we’ and ‘our’) deal with the infrastructure crisis facing us today. This argument centers around the importance of infrastructure—specifically smart decisions around infrastructure and planning—and how fundamental it has been to the successes of the U.S. economy to date. Further, Herbert’s contention describes us in a way that is parallel to the men in Calvino’s book– having lost sight of the past successes and the motivations that led to those successes, concerned with immediate interests, and living day to day without realizing the seriousness of our forgetfulness. Herbert refers to a recent Brookings Institution publication,
It’s almost as if we no longer understand the crucial links between infrastructure and the health of the American economy, the state of the environment and the viability of the nation as a whole. We’ve become stupid about this.
Consider transportation. As Brookings tells us, “Other nations around the globe have continued to act on the calculus that state-of-the art transportation infrastructure — the connective tissue of a nation — is critical to moving goods, ideas and workers quickly and efficiently. In the United States, however, we seem to have forgotten.”
Herbert addresses the need for a real infrastructure policy, one focusing on “the real needs of the American public,” rather than the politicians’ “pork.” Herbert concludes with an appeal to our hopeful nature saying,
Imagine, instead, an America with rebuilt, healthy, dynamic metropolitan areas, and gleaming new port facilities, and networks of high-speed rail, an America with electric vehicles and a smart grid and energy generated by the power of the sun and wind and water and the ocean’s waves. Imagine if the children of today’s toddlers had access to world-class public schools all across the nation and a higher education system that is both first-rate and affordable.
Imagine if we set out seriously to do all this. Imagine.
Herbert’s main concern is with how we leave the world for future generations. He implores us to share in his concern and to act on it. Herbert seems to believe that if we imagine such a world, we will inevitably see its value and, in turn, be willing to work towards it. It is important that we keep this focus/perspective in mind as continue to work on initiatives like transportation, water resource management, and the creation of a regional public health department. These are all issues that are fundamental to the sustainability and health of future generations in our region.